A Palapa on Top

Our local palapas may seem exotic to gringos, but they’re actually very practical and environmentally sound. Palapa roofs have been around in Mexico for about 2,000 years. Sometimes associated by local Mexicans with being poor, palapa roofs aren’t really the cheapest way to go. Even so, they’re often preferred by Gringos because of their beauty, utility and environmental reasons. Palapa-roofed buildings are sometimes simply called palapas, especially when the buildings are the traditional stick construction or there are no walls. At other times, the word ‘palapa’ just refers to a palm frond thatched roof.

With so little rainfall, there’s usually not a mold problem with palapa roofs on the Baja. Winds have to reach 60 miles per hour or so to cause one damage, but they lift with the wind and letting air flow through instead. Even if one comes apart, it can sometimes be reassembled. Since the palms are not forested for the fronds, but instead, there’s no reforestation need. The fronds dry naturally after the tree no longer needs them. No chemicals, or perhaps only a fire retardant, are used on them. This means that collateral pollution is minimized. The palapa roof allows air to circulate, too, so that fans and air conditioning are not as necessary as with other types of roofing.

If you really hate the idea of dirt, geckos and bugs in your roof, a palapa isn’t for you. Even with two layers of thatch, best for keeping dust and rain out, critters and dirt will get through. Alternatively, a palapa roof can be used on an open-air second floor or an outbuilding, as you might already have noticed around here. They’re frequently used over outdoor cooking and eating areas, as garages, and can be used over an outdoor bar or in umbrella shapes over a table or on the beach. If you’ve spent any time in Baja Sur, you’ve probably eaten in a structure with a palapa roof or at least had a drink under one.

From the inside, the palapa is more attractive than most other types of ceiling, and although it costs a little more, a shiny coat of varnish on it enhances its aesthetic appeal. The upper layer of thatch usually needs to be replaced every three to five years. A person who makes palapa roofs is called a palapero. Esiquio Caseño, a palapero who lives in El Pescadero, charges one hundred dollars per square meter for a palapa roof, including materials. This means that roofing a house that’s 50 square meters will cost about $5,000.

Of course, most buildings in Baja Sur aren’t that large. He builds the roofs for any type of structure.

You can learn to build a palapa yourself by watching a palapero and there are books that provide instructions. There are even websites with instructions, like http://home.earthlink.net/~gateruner/id13.html. If you want to re-create a bit of Baja Sur back home, see Palapa Kings at http://www.palapakings.com/pages/contact_us.html and order a kit or a kit and the workers to install it. Still, building a palapa is an art that’s based on skills gained through experience. You might not want to count on yourself for a good job on that new palapa roof for your house your first time or even second time out.

Caseño learned to build palapas from his father while growing up on a local cattle ranch where they had only palapas. He has been building palapas exclusively for about 25 years, since moving to the small town of Pescadero from the ranch, and is one of only two in the area who are as experienced. Caseño warns about hiring inexperienced palapa builders. He says some won’t complete the job and some really don’t do a good job. As with many services in Baja Sur, it’s a good idea to check around to make sure you’re hiring a palapero with the skills and access to good materials to do the job well. The palm fronds cost about $40 for 200, enough for about four square meters of roof, according to Caseño.

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